Brother

I only have one brother, and last week we went on a road trip. He uses his retirement to repair and service wind instruments, everything from huge tubas to tiny piccolos. Instead of engaging a trucking company, he chooses to deliver the instruments personally to the many schools, bands and conservatories of music. And, not unlike the piano tuner that plays a piece or two to celebrate his work, my brother has many old people’s homes that he calls in to play for the residents. With a fine sound system and classic pieces to accompany him, he plays his tuba, and according to the supervisor that welcomed us, its deep resonating sound somehow calms and appeals to the residents like nothing else. His repertoire is wide and on this occasion it included Ave Maria. I was surprised at the staff recording, not my brother and his tuba, but an old man in a wheelchair singing along. We learned later that the old man has been mute for years, but the power of the music transported him to another country and another time – he sang the entire piece in Latin.

My brother had a law practice, the only one in Balranald, far west NSW. And driving those vast distances to towns like Hay and West Wyalong, he gave a running commentary of stations changing hands, pointed out homesteads where he helped elderly clients put complex wills in place, court houses where magistrates adjourned proceedings to suggest a struggling defendant without counsel talk with Mr Edmunds for some advice. Pro bono of course. And before you think privileged up-bringing showing some easily afforded charity to the battlers, let me point out some backstory.

You see my brother left school early to take an apprenticeship in something that, if you know what it was, you are showing your age. A time when the insides of electric motors were stripped of their miles of wires and re-wound. A tedious and time consuming task that was taken for granted in an age when things were fixed instead of replaced. And like most of his mechanically-tasked peers, motorbikes and cars summed up his interests. Well, not exactly, his parents still insisted he take piano lessons, an activity he kept concealed from his mates. Then something happened, and I was with him when it did. Returning from a weekend away late at night just over a crest stood two black angus cows. We killed them both, and his highly modified pride and joy was a write-off.

It changed him. It was a change that gave him a new direction for his life. He moved from the workshop to a law office across the street. And there he met a lawyer whose life trajectory took him from a bakery to an acclaimed concert pianist, then moving into law late in life. This man became a mentor, and my brother began the slow process – read more than twenty years – of becoming qualified to practice law, all by correspondence study fitted around full-time work and raising a young family. Not online learning, this consisted of reams of notes requiring detailed responses, a course set and assessed by retired lawyers. And exams with upwards of 75% pass required. He failed many, including one notoriously difficult subject three times, meaning his entire work thus far would be lost for regulations prevented him attempting it again. His mentor had some influence and managed to have that requirement waived to allow a re-sit. He passed, and sometime later Dad, Mum, and us four kids went to Martin Place in Sydney to see him admitted to the bar as a barrister. It was a big deal for us.

On our road-trip we passed the old building in Hay where the NSW Law Society have their bi-annual meetings. When my brother retired the president of the society said a few words for the occasion. He said that “If one was looking for a lawyer that would ‘go for the jugular’ and not let go, there are several members that come to mind, but our colleague here is not one of them.” “If however you were in deep trouble and your only chance of staying out of jail was advocacy of the highest order, this man has no equal.” What a tribute.

About mid-way across the Hay Plains I asked him what triggered his passion for law, what kept him on track for so long without giving up. Without hesitation he replied “Remember when we studied To Kill a Mockingbird at school – I’m Atticus Finch”. The similarity is striking, for this tall self-effacing lawyer provided the only legal service over a wide area of western NSW. He told me he didn’t win many cases “because I didn’t have many innocent people, but I made a lot of friends and kept people out of jail”. Like Atticus, he was too modest to refer to the many indigenous people in that vast area that did not die in custody because they had an Atticus Finch.

As I said, I only have one brother, but a fine one indeed.

Island of Iona

The Abbey on Iona

Robyn’s people came from the Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. Probably driven overseas by the ‘clearances’ that reduced the island population from more than ten thousand to about three thousand in a couple of years. Just off the southern tip of Mull lies a small island called Iona – described on the tour-bus itinerary as ‘the beginning of Christianity in the British Isles’ bought here by an Irish monk named Columba around 300. I was keen to try and find out what he actually brought to the island and after about five hours walking around the abbey, listening to the audio guide, reflecting in the cloisters and the burial grounds, reading the museum guides, I have a limited idea of what he brought, and a better idea of what he didn’t.

He brought religion with a focus on paying penance of some sort. Iona has been the destination of pilgrims for centuries, many of them, according to the recording, on their hands and knees leaving a trail of blood on the rocky path. The word ‘repentance’, such an important idea in Christian thinking comes from this idea of ‘paying penance’ a sort of painful grovelling in order to gain a level of acceptance (called ‘being worthy’). Pity the translators didn’t use the Greek word that just means ‘change of mind’. It would have saved these poor beggars a lot of pain and effort.

Columba bought icons, and interestingly, it was on Iona that the cross first became an icon. For the centuries prior to Columba, the Christians could not bring themselves to use the cross in any of their art, the memory of that dreadful event was still too raw. But that changed on Iona, huge stone crosses were everywhere, even a museum area dedicated to the earliest carved ones. In the same way, Columba bought a passion for decorating scripture texts, intricate decorations that must have kept the abbots busy for months, even years. The Book of Kells in a Dublin library is the most famous example from Iona.

But the most significant thing bought to Iona at this time, in our minds was celibacy. I say significantly, because, in Robyn and I individually musing on Iona, we came to a singularly spectacular lack, no families and no children. A theology lacking the centrality of family means God becomes a distant deity worshiped by acts of piety. Penance is all important because the notion of ‘father’ is absent and icons and texts become replacements for anything like a living loving relationship.

But clearly the most significant thing Columba didn’t bring to the island: not a single reference to Jesus anywhere. Hard to believe, and while I may have missed something written or said, it appears to be the case. Even the nuns housed some distance away gathered each morning to hear the teachings of, not Jesus, not the Apostles, but Augustine. The teaching of a man who, perhaps more than any other figure, derailed the movement, a new direction that left the beautiful simplicity and purity of the first century believers a distant memory eventually forgotten. And in its place, an institution characterised by the unholy alliance of church and state emerged and is with us still. But worse than that, the notion of heaven and hell was consolidated, driven by a ruthless Roman-style efficiency in converting the world to its view. Believe, go to heaven; remain unconvinced and go to hell, and this too, sad to say is with us still.

What I would have preferred to celebrate on the island was someone bringing what the first century believers had, a conviction that Jesus was who he said he was, introducing them to a view of God as father that changed everything. The Gospel* to them was good news indeed. They weren’t side-tracked by the six views of hell running at the time and were comfortable with the first defining creed because it didn’t mention any of them. What did make the later believers uncomfortable was Augustine, at the Emperor’s request, formulating a single view of God’s judgement and hell as eternal conscious torment. As I said, he derailed the Jesus movement.

A movement that knew a period of growth and spread of the Gospel the like of which the world had never seen and has not since. Almost the entire Mediterranean Basin in a few decades, and most notable, without churches as we know them, without ministers, and without the Bible. They met in homes, under the loose oversight of a member/elder, and with a few fragments of the words and deeds of Jesus, and a few Apostolic letters and an occasional visit from an Apostle. Most were illiterate and they had little interest in the Hebrew scriptures apart from the Psalms (one can still buy a New Testament and Psalms today), and from the fragments and letters, they took what was helpful in the encouraging each other in the love of Jesus. Teachers arose, many of them ‘false’ and in the words of the last apostolic writer, John, referring to their ‘anointing of the Spirit’: ‘You have no need for anyone to teach you’.

Had that last Apostle been on the tour bus to Iona he would have seen a lot that we have no need of – icons, penance, crosses, and abbeys. He would have asked: “Where are the families?” Perhaps he would have started some clearances of his own to make a place for what Jesus intended.

* I like Bruxy Cavey’s definition of the good news: Jesus is God with us come to show us God’s love, save us from sin, set up God’s kingdom, and shut down religion, so we can share in God’s life. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9S38J9CyFks

Scotland the brave

We love Scotland, and we love the ease of fixing travel and accommodation in one mode – the small campervan. I say small, because apart from motorways, driving on UK roads is stressful in anything larger than a motorbike and sidecar, but camping in one of those is difficult. So, the small European camper was the next best thing, or so I thought. Being almost brand new, it was my introduction to automotive artificial intelligence. The relationship went south rather quickly. It clearly knew everything, and let me know when I tried to ignore it. More bipping alarms than a row of dump trucks going backwards, and the messages that came up on the ‘driver information centre’ all directed me to do something or other. Ignoring it was not a good idea; the relationship was clearly headed toward troubled waters. It wasn’t long before the ‘new information for the driver’ became a rather tart ‘read the driver’s manual before proceeding further’. I have been driving since I was a kid and don’t think I have ever read a driver’s manual – a workshop manual sure, but not how to drive a car.

Such thinking – yes it knew what I was thinking and detected that Robyn was leaning toward doing what it said (two relationships headed south now) – made the little foreigner deeply offended. I am sure it knew I was a headstrong Australian, so it decided to turn this little threat to its intelligence into a defence of National pride.

It knew the moment to strike and I was caught off guard. I mean how careful does one have to be just taking a photo, we were tourists after all. All hell broke loose. I can’t recall the exact sequence but it went something like this: I can’t open the door unless the thing is in park; can’t put it in park unless the brake is on; have to get back in to put the brake on; engine switches off when the brake is on to stop diesel fumes upsetting the atmosphere; can’t get out of the car if the key is still in the ignition; take the key out and the alarm sounds because the window is down to take the photo; can’t get the window up because the key is out of the ignition and alarm is still sounding. Robyn, sick of the alarm tells me to just do what it wants me to … I get mad at that as well as the car. Then she says I am developing a complex about it and it was that comment that convinced me she had been won over by the sneaky little devil. So, not many photos of Scotland. Just kidding. I must say if it was my car the wire cutters would make it more user friendly. Wouldn’t even need a workshop manual for that.

Nearly all the roads on the Scottish islands are single lane with passing places. And, surprisingly, it works rather well. Drivers are so considerate, one notices a car and quickly decides to pull into a passing place or, in response to a flick of lights, drive on, acknowledging their courtesy with a cheery wave. There are exceptions sadly. Drivers of high-performance European cars (no names but they have an ‘M’ and a ‘B’ in them) have an expectation of right-of-way and take it, always without a wave to acknowledge the fact that I reversed to find a place to pull off. Being an easy-going Aussie I wave when they pass, but only one finger.

Probably it was the complex Robyn talked about. When I delivered the camper back in Edinburgh, I left it out of park, the handbrake off, the keys in the ignition, the windows down, a string of instructions on the driver information screen, the bippers all going full blare, and walked away as a man who chooses intelligence of the non-artificial kind. Composed, assured, and confident that his wife will attend to the problems it causes. Intelligent camper, and headstrong to boot. Just kidding, again.

USA – the armchair ride

They say ‘young men see visions and old men dream dreams’. After seven decades I guess I am in the dreamer category, happy to admit it. Not sure about the visions but for as long as I can remember I have been a dreamer. By dreamer I mean those reflective moments (dreamers have a lot of those) when one explores: ‘I wonder what it would be like to …’ And then the dream takes shape, waits in the shadows for a while, then bursts centre stage and becomes the glorious reality. That’s why I don’t apologise for being a dreamer.

One such dream was an American road trip – the Interstates; the National Parks; the Midwest; the pioneer museums; the Native American memorials; and of course a romantic version of Route 66. Our elder son married a girl from Pennsylvania and they settled in Georgia, so staying with them meant we had opportunity to knock the dream into shape. An early consideration is what sort of vehicle, and either hire or buy. Dreamers can be rash, so it didn’t take long to settle on buying a Corvette convertible, for a road trip is about the driving after all. No lumbering RV for this old guy. The RV may have let me see the boats from a bridge instead of a guardrail, but I would have missed seeing all those truck wheels just beside my ear. We still camped in State Parks with light-weight gear and from our tent door we watched grey squirrels fascinated with the chrome wheels on the Corvette.

We got to love the open road. I can still feel the excitement of accelerating along the on-ramp. It became a bit of a joke between us. My reasoning was that I didn’t want to get in the way of that truck, but Robyn would notice the truck was nowhere near us. We were amazed at how far one could travel on the Interstates in a day. Our pattern was mostly an early start, a late breakfast, fruit and snacks at roadside rest stops, mostly with a memorable chat to the veteran volunteer keeping things tidy, then an evening meal before either a motel or camp. Restaurant food was mostly such a generous serve it became a next-day meal. In all we travelled 8,384 miles across 22 states over eight weeks in a dream car with arm chairs. Although we didn’t camp as often as we had intended because of the cold weather in the northern states (anything like an overnight low of low thirties was out of the question), we were still well below budget. Robyn’s ‘armchair ride across America’ didn’t cost the earth.

While we loved the open roads, the Blue Ridge Parkway was a highlight. Four hundred miles of following various ridges and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, a road without any commercial vehicles or towns, but lots of scenic views. Blessed with sunny weather, we drove it with the roof off, waved to other Corvette drivers, and let the hundreds of motorcyclists pass by pulling into a scenic overlook. We took our time, camped beside a little creek in a deep river valley. Robyn asked about bears and was told “We haven’t seen any this season …” Hardly reassuring, but he added that the dogs would bark if any came close. They did bark, I told Robyn it was definitely a Doberman bark, perhaps a Bull Mastiff, or maybe an Irish wolf hound/Rottweiler cross; all very cross so no bear would dare come near the camp. She believed me, because dreamers can be awfully charming as well as dreadful liars.

People ask about ‘best part’ of the road trip and it is difficult to list just one. However the dogs bark camp on the Parkway is certainly one. I remember the two of us after having cleaned up supper things and before climbing into the tent just having that couples chat. ‘This is as good as it gets’ we agreed. It was nearly the end of our weeks on the road and we couldn’t bring to mind a single misfortune, any car problems, roadside delays, being shot at, and, best of all, never a cross word between us. Yes, the dreams that old men dream can burst into glorious reality, and remain the memories of a life well lived.

Different in every sense

In these Covid times with international travel a distant dream, the Northern Territory is enticing would-be travelers to their state. One frequently seen ad is captioned: ‘Different in every sense’. Robyn and I beat each other to say ‘sure is’ every time we hear it, for we spent a couple of years in the territory at an indigenous boarding school miles from anywhere.

My arrival at the school was different. The school was in crisis: too few students to make it viable and too many students enrolled that didn’t want to be there. The principal had been fired and house parents were sending trouble-makers home. And then I show up knowing very little of the background, and no clue as to where ‘home’ might be. Two boys were walking across the oval with their bags, so I asked them where they were going. ‘Home’ was their reply, so I rode my bike alongside them thinking I can accompany them home, teacherly duty like. Where is home? I asked. Ngukurr (sounds like nooker) they replied. ‘Is it far?’ ‘No’ was their answer. Then I asked if we will be there before dark. No, it will be a few days they said. At that I persuaded them to come home and stay at my place with the promise to sort things out tomorrow. Next morning I find out that ‘home’ is more than nine hours drive away. So, the expelled kids live with us, and when a few more join us the full wrath of the house parents’ comes crashing down. Not pretty, but necessary. Not my first exposure to that judgment/punishment vs compassion/tolerance dilemma, and also not my first time as defender of those who need somebody in their corner. Guess who became principal.

Nearly all schools have camps, but these were different – a boys camp and a girls camp. One highly organized, many topics of major significance (sex education), guest specialist speakers, great food, good accommodation, and of course hot showers and little gift bags of perfume goodies. The other was, well the word that comes to mind is ‘blokey’. Yes, we covered the sex bit, but hardly made it the focus. Showers, no. Bags of goodies, yes, chips. Guest speakers, no but watched a great movie. Our focus as stated was: ‘Fishing and Fun’ so we all knew why we were there – to do what these boys do best. One thing that amazes me is the boys’ approach to fishing. They catch fish to eat, not later when they have caught enough, but there and then. No gutting or scaling, but straight on the fire, turned a couple of times then the skin peeled off and the flesh eaten. Equally amazing, their expression of fun is to do a forward roll and land on their feet, sometimes several in a row. So sand dunes and river banks make a perfect gym equivalent. And no, I didn’t try it.

Sport is common to all schools, but here again our school was different. Robyn, myself and another teacher took a group of students into Darwin to play inter-school soccer. We didn’t win many games, mainly because some schools take their sport very seriously. We had just come from a camp of fishing and fun, and the fun aspect carried over onto the soccer field. Competition demanded girls in each team. Most schools had a token two girls; not us. Our girls are used to mixing it with the boys and played as good as the boys. Barefoot and fast, kicking and all. Oh what a delight to see such lithe supple young people enjoying themselves and scoring amazing freakish goals. Discipline poor; teamwork barely; strategies non-existent; captain/leadership none; coaching next question; having a good time and spending too much energy chasing each other, yes. It was the only time I saw a group of players decide to have a little chat in the middle of the game, completely oblivious to the action around them, then with an amazing burst of energy join the game again. They play the game of life by their rules.

And I remember the excursions. Yes, we used the college bus and took a cut lunch, but in most other respects it was an excursion with a difference. They were mustering at Twin Hill Station, an indigenous owned and run cattle property just twenty minutes from the college. One of our house parents was a senior figure in the company and we were there at his invitation. We took the four-wheel-drive bus, a great lumbering beast that allowed us to really look down on the world, and on the cattle. Fourteen hundred of them.

We saw the vehicles first, a row of utes and quad bikes to slow the cattle down. You see these Brahman cross animals are part wild and you can’t just ‘drove’ them quietly. When they go they run, and would lose too much condition and exhaust themselves if let go. Then a row of utes following the giant herd and when they saw us, they stopped, and next thing the bus was empty and all our kids were up on the backs of the utes shouting and laughing. Not sure I gave permission for that, but like the animals they were following – part wild. And the helicopter, it was something else. I tried to film it, but half the time it was lower than the trees and I couldn’t see it. I was hoping it didn’t fly that low near the kids, or they would be swinging from the skids for sure – they wouldn’t be the only ones on the skids if anything happened. A day of cattle, noise, dogs, quad bikes, utes, a helicopter, men in big hats, and four huge road trains lined up. No wonder Robyn and I had to drag them away: “Aw Miss, can’t we stay here …”

Those tempted by the ad campaign won’t get to experience what we did of course, but they will see barrel-chested men on Harley Davidsons wearing nothing more than navy singlet and shorts; four-wheel-drives jacked up high with pony-sized hunting dogs in cages on the back, and they will experience a frontier approach to life unlike anywhere else in Australia. Yes, the Territory is different in every sense.

Funerals and Ghosts

I overheard the funeral service of Prince Phillip on Robyn’s phone. The hymn ‘for those in peril on the sea’ was what caught my attention. Churchill requested that the hymn be sung during his meeting with Roosevelt on board a battleship in 1941. I requested the hymn be sung during a memorial service mid-way across Bass Strait by a group of my senior students in 1985. Now remember my teaching role was to take school resisters and offer them something resembling a worthwhile learning experience in their final years. But hymn singing you ask? I can still picture those brawny youths standing around the piano at home while Robyn tried to get post-choir-boy voices into something like harmony.

Yes hymn singing. Well only one hymn, couldn’t let my music-teacher wife get carried away, and besides these school resisters had had a lot of practice at marching to the tune of a different drummer. Football was their thing not religious music, and it occurred to me that an activity that built upon their physical capacities would engage them, and the idea of crewing on two large ocean-going yachts had immediate appeal. It had also occurred to me that kids can learn surprisingly well if it is in a context, so sailing became a context for swimming and first aid qualifications, and a whole host of new skills for the trip. The hymn was to be part of a dawn service to honour the hundreds of lives lost on the coasts either side of a narrow strait between King Island, Tasmania, and Cape Otway, Victoria.

Nineteen eighty five was the 150th anniversary of the settlement of Victoria as well as International Year of Youth, both events offering funding for state or youth activities. The funding provided each crew member with a state-of-the-art life jacket, and a sweat shirt with the anniversary logo across the chest. Fortunately the life jackets were worn but never needed, and unfortunately the sweatshirts were worn and resulted in the entire memorial service ending up on the cutting room floor. The morning of the service was shrouded in a heavy sea mist, and the white sweatshirts meant that everyone looked like ghosts making a white trail on the film with every movement. Not a good look at all. Twenty odd ghosts in the mists at a service for lives lost at sea looked too perilous indeed.

This boat is all we want … yeah right

Have you ever noticed that when we talk about men and their toys it is never ‘toy’? It is this way because it never stays as one. It starts out as one, then a bigger/newer/faster one, and then another and so on. After I had my first sailboat a while, I bought a Mirror dinghy, and I remember telling Robyn it is all we will ever need in a sailboat – yeah, right. The Hartley TS 16 came next, and lots of sailing family holidays with our two boys. All we ever needed, until … standing headroom would be nice … a toilet and shower would be nice … four proper bunks … get the picture?

I am not sure if these were ‘must-haves’ for your next boat, but a couple of decades ago there were not too many of these boats one could put on a trailer and tow off to the islands. So, nothing else for it, I would have to design and build my own. Some years later a ‘thing of indescribable beauty’ emerged from my shed ready for some far-off islands. Well not just any islands, but the seventy-four that make up the Whitsunday Islands in north Queensland.

I had sailed among them before. A career of running student enterprise programs where young people developed products or skills they marketed to fund travel, meant as their teacher, I had to go along and keep an eye on them. I mean, one has a duty of care to ensure the kids are safe out there in the real world – on ski-fields, on remote indigenous communities, on Greyhound buses in America, ocean sailing, and many yacht charters, including the Whitsundays. I didn’t let on to the kids, but I said to myself, the next time I come up here it will be with my own boat and my family and lots of time. They found out of course, for I didn’t show up at school for six months and came back suntanned and happy.box_ck

A group of young people enjoying the fruit of their fee-for-service work which funded
their travel plans. In this case yacht charter – Box’s Creek, Gippsland Lakes

 

Degrees of Freedom

Degrees of Freedom.

Sometimes a man has a dream, the kind that does not go away. He lies awake at night, and even during the day, bits and pieces of the dream take shape. The dream was a holiday around the Whitsunday Islands. The thing that was taking shape was a family sailboat.

cid You ask about the name. Well, I was studying at the time, doing a degree in Social Science. It was a lecture in research methods or something like that. It was hot, and as lecture theatres usually are, it was stuffy.
My mind drifted to the islands where it would not be stuffy. I could feel the gentle tropical breeze drift across the bow of my boat. Not sure what the lecturer was saying, but a single phrase degrees of freedom kept intruding into my mental holiday, until, hey, that’s a great name for my boat.

Some men like to fix things. Some men like to make things. Now of course some men do both, but I am a maker. I once had a classic sports car; did all my courting in it; sat the child seat alongside (it didn’t have seat belts) for my son’s introduction to wind-in-the-hair motoring; later our two sons used to squeeze into the space behind the bucket seats. Had it long enough for it to need fixing. Then it was exchanged for a complete chassis, performance engine, racy gearbox, ready for me to make a fibreglass roadster body. Like I said, I am a maker not a fixer.

Makers or fixers – all men are dreamers. Someday I am going to … and they drift off into that dreamlike state that makes some tune out and others tune in.  And, among these ‘some-day’ plans, as often as not, there will be a boat. And with a boat, an ocean, a sunset, and yes, a tropical island with white beach sand and palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze. Well, that is how it was with me – a dream boat.

The brain as a pattern matching organ (Part Two)

Every time your purchases are scanned electronically, a process called ‘pattern recognition’ identifies each item, adds them together, and prints out a docket. The bar code is read by a scanner, it sends the code details to a data bank which finds a perfect match and identifies this unique item among thousands in the store. The human brain uses a similar process – it makes sense of things by matching what it sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, with what is already on file as a neural element or ‘pattern’. Better described by UCLA Berkeley Professor George Lakoff: Thoughts make use of an extensive but unconscious system of metaphorical concepts – a typically concrete realm used to comprehend a different domain.

The electronic scanning process relies on a perfect match and can only make sense of what is scanned if the exact code has been stored in the data bank. The human brain however, is metaphorical in nature and not limited by only being able to make sense of exact matches, or what is already on file. It can use approximations to make some sense of totally unfamiliar experience. An example of this process could be seen in a recent ABC documentary of the first contact indigenous people had with Europeans during the atomic testing in remote South Australia during the 1950’s. The film crew interviewed Yuwali, a Martu tribeswoman who was a teenager at the time, and her expression upon seeing a white vehicle approaching was “Look, those white rocks have come alive and they are rolling toward the camp!” Yuwali was making sense of new information by matching it with what she already knew. With more exposure to white people, more sense-making patterns were added, and she was able to make those distinctions between vehicles and rocks.

What if ‘approximations’ are used instead of distinctive patterns to make sense of our environment? Good question, especially given the subtleties of social interaction and the demands of relationships. Most of the people I see in my practice are using a limited array of patterns, and many people are helped enormously by adding to their repertoire of patterns. Being able to draw on an expanded array of sense-making patterns increases the prospect of accuracy – their perceptions are closer to a shared model of reality. Social interaction becomes more fulfilling, and relationships more rewarding.

Not all people are helped. There are some people who seem unable to accept that reality is what each of us build using our experiences, our learning and our sense-making process. Some people regard reality as an absolute, a franchise they have exclusive rights to, a view that allows them to dismiss other’s views so readily. They hold their point of view with tenacity not unlike a primitive survival response – their sense of life, identity and future seems to be threatened if they contemplate a revision to their thinking. Little wonder their social interaction is characterised by superficial, short-term, one-sided encounters and their relationships limited to those able (or resigned) to tolerate their inflexibility.

Reminds me of philosopher Karl Popper’s words: … even great scientists fail to reach that self-critical attitude which would prevent them from feeling very sure of themselves while gravely misjudging things.

While customers would not tolerate ‘approximations’ in the purchasing process, humans need to be open to the possibility that the sense-making process may not be serving our best interest, and prepared to part with the ‘feeling very sure’ in order to ask that crucial question: Is this how it really is, or just the way I think it is?

The brain as a pattern-matching organ (Part One)

We make sense of (intellectually understand) everything we see, hear, touch, by matching the information with a neural element (or pattern) already on file in our brain. The continuous stream of information is processed quickly and efficiently. The familiar information is a close match (we understand it well); unfamiliar information takes a little longer but with the use of an approximate pattern, we are able to say “Hmmm, it is like…” thus making sense of new information.

The healthy brain has a fascination for the unfamiliar or novel, it is continually ready for the challenge of making sense of things it does not understand, continually learning, thereby adding to its library of patterns. The term ‘approximate pattern’ is important, for without this, the new information cannot be processed or understood.

It could be said then, that the brain is a pattern-matching organ. This definition has implications for understanding the healthy brain, as well as getting a clearer picture of what happens when things go wrong. The implications include:

  • metaphor (‘it is like’) is fundamental part of information processing
  • what we ‘know’ depends on the number of patterns we have access to
  • learning relies on new information being added to existing approximate patterns
  • our model of ‘reality’ comes from the patterns we use

Many patterns are instinctive, they were formed during the development of the foetus and are necessary for survival – avoiding harm and getting our needs met. In the process of making sense of things, the information from our sense organs passes through the survival part of the brain that filters the stimuli for threats to our needs getting or being met.

Pattern-matching at this level takes place before any conscious awareness, it is pre-language and pre-thought. The implications of this fairly recent understanding are significant, the principle one being thought as we know it, is a ‘re-presentation’ of the original stimuli that may or may not have changed depending on the patterns used to make sense of it. This ‘filtering’ process means innate human needs influence thought itself.

The patterns used in this filtering process include ones we were born with, and ones added during our formative years and beyond. While some of these patterns are generic, many are unique to the individual – formed by learning and experience. Pattern-matching is an efficient way for the brain to make sense of stimuli based on what it has processed before, and avoids having to deal with a vast array of experience as though it is a first-time event. (Alzheimer’s is characterised by poor access to patterns, thus responding to each experience as a new event.)

While pattern-matching may be an efficient process, it is subject to factors that may increase or decrease its capacity to select appropriate patterns for specific situations. Emotions, for example, essentially prepare the body for action of some kind, from the extreme fight flight freeze response that marshals a host of body systems in preparation for action, to a more simple tactile sympathy gesture that may have little more physiological dimension than a moistening of the eyes. With heightened emotional arousal the level of sophistication in the brain’s search for an appropriate pattern is reduced, and a pattern from a limited range will usually be selected.

This primitive pattern-matching is known as ‘black and white’ thinking as the shades of grey, those insights that give each situation a here-and-now uniqueness, are lacking. Perfect for survival responses, but decidedly limiting if used on an on-going basis. Where the primitive patterns are used over and over again, thinking becomes self-focused, narrow, and pessimistic instead of expansive, explorative and others-focused. This thinking style is usually present in stress, depression and anxiety-related conditions, and the recognition that patterns are the filter through which all thoughts are formed, and the understanding that emotional arousal (excessive worry for example) causes a primitive thinking style, provides for effective therapeutic approaches.